East vs. West: Cultural differences in the job interview


Does anyone remember the AT&T commercial where a man insults his Chinese business associate when he mispronounces the associate’s name?

The commercial highlights the importance of clarity and precision in communication, and it also underscores the cultural nuances that we encounter at our increasingly global workplaces. These situations may seem funny in retrospect, but if they’re not handled properly they may have serious consequences not only for the employee but for the company as well.

And these cultural distinctions extend far beyond the spoken language. I’ve had work experience in several culturally-distinct countries and I can safely say the attitudes employers expect to see in a candidate also vary greatly from one country to another.

In Malaysia – a country heavily influenced by its Eastern morals and values – modesty, respect and courtesy are some of the characteristics candidates are expected to possess and display. This is not to say that employers in Western countries do not appreciate such values – quite the contrary.

However, in Malaysian culture, reverence and respect for elders, and by extension those higher up in the social hierarchy, are expected virtues in any individual. These qualities are therefore crucial in dealing with clients and associates.

As a result, candidates are expected to demonstrate these values during the interview process at great lengths and then some.

Along the same vein, candidates are also expected to acknowledge an organization’s inherent hierarchy, be it a formal or informal one. Of course, it goes without saying that falling in line is expected in any company anywhere on the globe. As the saying goes, ‘You have to go along in order to get along.’

However, in Malaysia, it’s crucial that a candidate displays a certain readiness, or even an eagerness, to fit into the existing pecking order. It might seem superficial or perhaps somewhat trivial, but it’s crucial nonetheless as it is seen as a manifestation of the candidate’s respect towards his or her superiors.

From the job interviews I’ve had in Australia and Canada – not all of them successful, naturally – I’ve found that ambition, confidence and being proactive are highly regarded by employers. These qualities are often the determining factors for whether an interview is successful or not.

Here in Canada, candidates are expected to possess high self esteem and feel confident about ‘selling’ themselves to employers. This is perhaps the greatest distinction between the work cultures in Canada and Malaysia.

Here, a candidate should be able to clearly articulate his or her winning qualities as they are relevant to the position. They should be able to draw on past achievements to demonstrate those qualities and they should also feel confident in expressing how those qualities make them the best candidate for the position.

In Malaysia, however, ‘selling’ oneself is akin to boasting – the opposite of modesty – and therefore seen as almost a taboo. Since modesty is an expected virtue, self-promotion – and I mean that in the best possible way – is done in a more subtle and indirect manner, chiefly through the resumé.

Numerous other facets of a culture come into play in determining on whether or not a candidate has had a successful interview and it is impossible to list them all. Suffice it to say that it is good to develop a feel for the subtleties that exist within any given culture in order to gage what an employer might expect to see in a candidate.

Interested in working in Asia? Stay tuned for more “East vs. West” articles by Lin Rahiman in the coming weeks and months.

About the author

Lin Rahiman is a second-year journalism student at Wilfrid Laurier University. She has had work and study experience in Malaysia, Australia and Canada.